Marbling from an 1880 French book, via The Paris Review
Links from the past week:
The Enemies, and Friends, of the Humanities
The Musicians Silenced in the Great War
In Defence of Puccini
A Visit With Mary Beard
The Birth of Impressionism Calculated to the Nearest Minute
From our pages:
Dogma & Diaghilev
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Daniel Barenboim; photo by Karl Schoendorfer/REX, via the Daily Telegraph
There was a Wagner concert in the Great Festival Hall at the Salzburg Festival last night. Daniel Barenboim led the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and a cast of veteran singers in the Prelude, Act II, and Liebestod (“Love-Death”) from Tristan und Isolde. The festival gave this concert an intriguing name: “The Tristan und Isolde Project.” But people have been performing exactly this program from time immemorial. It’s what you do when you want to give a Tristan concert.
I’d like to tell a story. Some years ago, I attended a Tristan at the Metropolitan Opera. Barenboim was in the pit. He was conducting very badly, or indifferently. It was like he had simply not shown up. During the second intermission, I made up my mind to leave. But I had gotten separated from the friend whom I had taken to the opera. So I went back to our seats to tell her I was leaving. She argued that I should stay. And then the lights were dimming. So I had no choice but to sit down.
And, in Act III, Barenboim was enthralling—entirely engaged, entirely musical, spellbinding. Why? Why then and not before? I don’t know.
Last night, Barenboim was very good—superb—from the beginning. The Prelude was very slow—probably the slowest I have heard—but it never dragged. It breathed beautifully and compellingly all through. He was no less good for the rest of the evening. This was the conducting of a podium master.
The orchestra was not good, or maybe I should say not first-class. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a cultural-political effort, an orchestra made up of Israelis and Arabs. On purely orchestral merits, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra would probably not get a gig like this. But people support the idea behind the orchestra, understandably.
It occurred to me that Barenboim needed to try harder, or conduct better, because of the quality of the orchestra. Again, I don’t know.
The singers were placed behind the orchestra, on risers. They were quite a long way from the audience. They might have been better off in front of the orchestra, as they traditionally are.
In the role of Isolde was Waltraud Meier, the German mezzo-soprano. Isolde is a soprano role, but mezzos dip a toe in—Christa Ludwig made a famous recording of the Liebestod. And Meier, as a singer, is a bit of a ’tweener: a soprano / mezzo-soprano.
The great Meier had very little voice to give. And what voice she had was not in good shape. She struggled, with intonation and everything else, throughout the night. She had zero high notes. Everything high was flat. Did she have enough musical intelligence and wiles to make up for the absence of a voice? That would be practically impossible: You really need an instrument in the part of Isolde.
Like Meier, our Tristan, the German tenor Peter Seiffert, had little voice to give. He, too, had a struggle throughout.
So, this was the situation: In some of the most beautiful music ever written, no one—neither the soprano (or mezzo) nor the tenor nor the orchestra—was making a beautiful sound. That was a problem.
Eventually, King Mark came on, and he was the best King Mark of our time: René Pape, the German bass. He came on with his water bottle. Why do singers in concert think they must have water with them at all times? They don’t in opera. Anyway, Pape sang like the best King Mark of our time. He contributed total authority.
In the Liebestod, as in the score at large, Barenboim was alert and kind: He took the singer’s final measures at lightning speed, knowing she was out of gas. Then he slowed down, to deliver the orchestra’s closing pages beautifully, transcendently.
A customer pays a lot of money when he attends a performance at the Salzburg Festival. What did he get last night? He got superb conducting and a superb King Mark. Otherwise . . .
Daniel Barenboim is one of those mysteries. He can conduct or play the piano like a dog—like a pigheaded amateur. And he can conduct or play like an all-time master. This is one of the things that make musical life interesting, I suppose.
I will end on a meteorological note: It has been very cool in Salzburg. Last night, the temperature was maybe 55 degrees. And inside the Great Festival Hall, it was sweltering. I’m surprised the audience didn’t drop like flies. The heat inside the halls—no matter the weather outside—is part of the Salzburg experience.
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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Divan Japonais. 1893. Lithograph
MOMA has mounted three major exhibitions of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in the past, each separated by twenty or thirty years. Their most recent exhibition—“The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters”—arrives just on schedule, following 1985’s “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.”
Thirty years feels like the right amount of time to wait for a reappraisal; any longer would be risky. Toulouse-Lautrec needs defending as probably no other canonized artist of modern times does. His work has been so shamelessly vulgarized, imitations of his prints so often hung on the bathroom walls of overpriced French restaurants, that one is predisposed to look askance at his work and his reputation.
MOMA revises this unfair perception with “Prints and Posters,” which includes both lighthearted and serious works. The exhibition, which runs until March of next year, focuses on lithography to the exclusion of almost every other medium. This curatorial choice might seem narrow-minded at first, but it makes perfect sense in the case of Toulouse-Lautrec, whose best work was often in the form of printed posters, ads, and illustrations.
The form suited Toulouse-Lautrec. It was as malleable as he was. Born into an aristocratic family, he spent his days and nights among the masses in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, but returned home every evening to have dinner with his pious mother. Bandy-legged and bespectacled, he cut a very strange figure among his own class, but found himself accepted into the world of freaks, barflies, and prostitutes that surrounded him in Paris.
Paris, like printing, suited Toulouse-Lautrec’s protean nature. The city presented him with many and varied scenes and settings, of which we see a wide sampling in “Prints and Posters.” The delirious energy of posters like La Troupe de Mademoiselle Eglantine is mellowed by the presence of more meditative works, like the “Elles” lithographs. Toulouse-Lautrec produced the “Elles” series, depicting eleven of Paris’s best known prostitutes, for a book about brothel life; however, the book flopped—apparently his portrayals of prostitutes did not sufficiently titillate the French reading public. The pictures remain, and give us proof of Toulouse-Lautrec’s range. They are among his finest works, and betray the strong influence of Degas—the shabbily wallpapered apartments, the yawning laundresses, the women bent double. Toulouse-Lautrec creates powerful images of femininity unlaced, unpowdered, and unadorned.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Femme au tub (Woman at the Tub) from the portfolio “Elles.” 1896. Lithograph
The exhibition itself embodies Toulouse-Lautrec’s spirit of eclecticism. A touchscreen tablet allows the viewer to scroll through a book of illustrations, while speakers on either side pour out the chirping voice of Yvette Guilbert, a cabaret singer and a favorite subject of Toulouse-Lautrec. The same cabaret song repeats on loop. (A little variation or cessation of the music surely would have enhanced the effect.) An old film by the Lumière brothers, the acknowledged forefathers of filmmaking, shows a danse serpentine, a whirling-dervish sort of dance where women in dresses twirl huge bolts of silk on bamboo poles. A few photographs give us a nostalgic peep into fin-de-siècle Montmartre, a place today so flooded with tourists that it is hard to imagine what it was like during its heady youth.
All this extra material seems a little excessive, but then again, so is Toulouse-Lautrec. He revels in the cheap, relishes in baubles and bawdiness. As reported in an old MOMA catalogue, contemporaries describe Toulouse-Lautrec’s work as “exquisitely perverse” and “superbly nauseating.” “Prints and Posters” shows that he is sometimes simply “exquisite” and “superb.”
“The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on July 26, 2014 and remains on view through March 22, 2015
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As Scott Johnson over at Powerline has noted, the Sixties seems to be making a comeback on the world stage. Consider Barack Obama’s pathetic response to the violence and racial posturing in Ferguson. “It was,” Johnson writes, “a statement full of the reigning leftist clichés, even retrieving the “anger” of “looting” and “carrying guns” from […]
Piotr Beczala; photo via Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli / Lelli
Piotr Beczala has for years been an opera star, and on Sunday night he had his turn upon the recital stage here at the Salzburg Festival. Beczala is a Polish tenor whose name is pronounced “Beck-SHAH-wah.” He owns a beautiful voice, and has a key ingredient for a singer, or a musician, or a person, for that matter: likability.
He gave his recital in the House for Mozart, with the pianist Kristin Okerlund. They offered an appetizing program, with two distinct halves. On the first half was Dichterliebe, Schumann’s song-cycle, which gave the singer a chance to prove his chops in German art song. This is almost necessary at the Salzburg Festival. On the second half was music closer to home, which is to say, Beczala’s native land. It was all Slavic: songs by Karlowicz (a Pole), Dvorak (a Czech), and Rachmaninoff (a Russian).
I once did a public interview of Beczala in this town. He said he had studied with Sena Jurinac, the famed “Yugoslavian” soprano, as we used to say. I asked, “What language did you communicate in?” He said, “We call it ‘Slavic mix’”—some Russian, some Polish, some Czech, some Serbo-Croatian . . .
Dichterliebe did not begin well. Okerlund, the pianist, warped the opening with an excess of rubato. And when the tenor came in, he was strained and tentative—not sounding like himself at all. He seemed to be in some vocal distress. Possibly, he was nervous. The first song was very, very shaky.
But Beczala soon came into his voice. He had nothing low, however, and Schumann requires some low notes in this cycle. The pianist, I believe, played much more bluntly than she intended. I’m not sure she could properly hear her accentuation, for example. I have no doubt she intended more refinement, more lyricism.
The performers never quite settled into Dichterliebe. The cycle never quite cast its spell. Beczala sang some excellent individual phrases, as he can’t help doing—he’s a world-class tenor. But Dichterliebe did not have its marvelous overall effect.
What it had, along with Beczala’s voice, was the singer’s likability. You root for him, in all circumstances. He is winning, no matter the weather.
Leaving for intermission, I thought, “If they could do it over, it would be much better. They need a mulligan.” I don’t often have this thought. But I believe that Beczala and Okerlund were capable of much more in this cycle. I’m sorry the performance was recorded for posterity (more on that in a moment).
Mieczyslaw Karlowicz was a Pole who lived a very brief life: 1876 to 1909. He was thirty-two when he died in a skiing accident. I have said he lived “a very brief life,” but, let’s face it, he lived a year longer than Schubert.
Beczala sang seven songs of Karlowicz, published between 1897 and 1899. In them, you heard the voice of sheer authenticity (Beczala’s). I will mention a detail, a technical detail: In the first song, Beczala did not have a true piano. He was hoarse and hooded. (Pavarotti would do this, on his worst days.) But at the end of the last song, he floated a beautiful little high A. He held it forever, never wavering from his pitch, even as the pianist shifted harmonies underneath him.
Speaking of the pianist, she played agreeably in these songs, as in subsequent ones.
The program told us that she and Beczala would next perform Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs, Op. 55. They would close with their Rachmaninoff group. Instead, they launched into the Rachmaninoff group—with no indication to the audience, written or spoken, so far as I’m aware.
Beczala should have eaten these songs alive. They are in his wheelhouse. And he sang them well enough. Yet some of the dreamy songs were not smooth enough, from either performer, to be truly dreamy. There were seams in the seamlessness. Also, Beczala did some straining on high and soft notes. And then there was this:
I’ve never much liked it when people say, “So-and-so sang the song like an opera aria. It was far too operatic.” The truth is, there is some opera-singing in song-singing, and some song-singing in opera-singing. And yet—a couple of the Rachmaninoff songs sounded too much like opera arias.
Beczala sang them with heart, however. And he sang Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs with heart—and voice, and style, and gladness.
The audience was very pleased, and he gave them four encores. The first two were classic Italian songs—as distinct from classical Italian songs. They were “Cor ’ngrato” and “Mattinata.” Beczala sang them, naturally, with voice and heart. They were not particularly Italianate—but this mattered little.
Then he sang two Strauss songs, ending with “Zueignung,” the most common encore in song recitals, at least in my experience: It is a song of thanks. Beczala sang it very warmly, expansively, and likably.
Let me append a few footnotes—beginning with a remark on “gender,” as we say these days. Not often is the singer a man and the accompanist a woman. Beczala made sure to let her go first, as they retreated from the stage into the wings (or wing). A gentleman.
I thought of Ivari Ilja, known for accompanying Dmitri Hvorostovsky (the Russian baritone). Once, he had a female page-turner. And always insisted she go first.
Okay, the second footnote, also about “gender,” as it happens. Here in Salzburg, only the female performers receive flowers from ushers at the end of performances. In America—at least in New York—male and female alike receive flowers. We have developed a unisexual, or metrosexual, culture. I once saw Bryn Terfel (the Welsh bass-baritone) receive his flowers onstage at Carnegie Hall. He was charmingly mocking about it.
And the final footnote: The Beczala recital was recorded for television, apparently. Anna Netrebko, the starry Russian soprano, was in the audience. She has been singing Leonora in Verdi’s Trovatore next door in the Great Festival Hall. During the Beczala recital, in the House for Mozart, a camera was now and then trained on her.
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Gianandrea Noseda; photo by Ramella&Giannese
One of the particular problems that comes with performing Beethoven's Ninth, at least with modern programming conventions, is how to complement it. At an hour to an hour and ten, it's too long to pair with a full-length concerto (unless you want a twenty-five-minute first half, a twenty-minute intermission, and a seventy-minute second half) but too short to program all by itself (as is often done with, say, any number of Mahler symphonies). The trick is to find an overture of about ten minutes that won't look completely flimsy next to perhaps the greatest warhorse in the symphonic repertoire.
Gianandrea Noseda, conducting the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra last Wednesday, chose another late work, the Consecration of the House overture. It’s not the most thrilling or commanding of Beethoven’s concert overtures, but it has history in its favor, as it and the Ninth were originally premiered together. The opening chords came in wide, flashing bursts as the strings played with stately breadth, showing off a rich, burnished tone. Noseda’s direction was both sensible and liberal, allowing the measured opening to flow naturally and organically into the spirited bounding that follows.
The MMF Orchestra is a reduced band, of the size we'd expect from the early classical period—twenty violins, as opposed to the thirty or so common for a modern symphony orchestra. All hands are usually called for when this piece is performed, so to hear it stripped down as it was on Wednesday gives the symphony an entirely different complexion. In a few spots the result was less than illuminating; at the opening, for instance, the reduced strings were able to play spectacularly softly, but the horns above them, which are marked pianissimo, seemed absolutely blaring. (Moreover, the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall, modified annually for this festival, seemed especially unforgiving from where I sat, though others further back in the hall reported a different experience.)
In general, though, the scale of the orchestra allowed for a pared-away reading of the work, a sound that didn't envelop the audience as we're used to, but that still got at the meat of the music. Fewer in number, the strings were able to dig in and bow freely without fear of upsetting the balance.
There was solid playing and intelligent conducting throughout the symphony, but the highlight was a hair-raising rendition of the second movement. In this Scherzo (and in the Fifth's, for that matter) Beethoven displays a darker-than-pitch sense of humor, and the relentless thrashing of this movement's clockwork theme gets delightfully nasty. Noseda, though, managed to keep the music’s impishness from getting away from him, finding the very real wit underneath all of that bile, pairing the scherzo with a cool, singing trio.
Noseda led a sweet and ruminative account of the Adagio, though he found less variety here than in the rest of the symphony. The music sat mostly at one level of energy, which is not entirely out of place, but gave the sense of being “stuck.” The finale, too, initially seemed to be on a tight leash, sounding less than chaotic in its explosive presto introduction. What followed, though, was masterfully crafted, as Noseda’s conducting tantalized in the build-up to the main theme, teasing the audience with the echoed snatches from the earlier movements and keeping a lid on the orchestra right up through the celli’s first sotto voce purr of the “An die Freude” melody. The interpretation was intelligent, clear, and varied, leading us through beaming choral outbursts (courtesy of the Concert Chorale of New York, magnificently booming and richly toned), a delightfully coy march, and an intricately layered fugato section.
For star power, the vocal quartet featured the Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, who was a commanding presence with his gigantic, smoky voice. This was not his most precise singing (he had an uncharacteristically rough time finding the pitches at the bottom of his range), but he brought richly colored, rough-hewn sound to his part. His three compatriots were all admirable in turn: The tenor Russell Thomas declaimed his soli with confidence and the two ladies—the mezzo-soprano Anna Maria Chiuri and the soprano Erika Grimaldi, in her U.S. debut—displayed precise, clear technique, weaving together beautifully when singing ensemble.
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Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.
This week: Toulouse-Lautrec's prints and posters, a new take on the travails of Edgar Allan Poe, and a performance of Mozart's Requiem Mass.
Fiction: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (Simon & Schuster): This debut novel spans six decades, following the life of Eileen Tumulty. The only child of working-class, alcoholic parents, Eileen’s rough upbringing in Queens leaves her searching for a way to raise both her social and economic standing. She sees her opportunity in Ed Leary, a neuroscientist who she falls in love with and marries. Ed, however, is less interested in lucrative jobs and flashy academic positions than in pursuing scientific research. When the couple finally moves to Westchester—a long-time dream of Eileen’s—Ed is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers, and the challenges of keeping the family together while pursuing upward economic mobility become even more difficult. —BPK
Nonfiction: Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living by Paul Collins (New Harvest): Collins, a professor at Portland State University, paints a portrait of Poe as a talented writer who was ruined by his own lofty artistic ambitions. Collins parallels the Poe’s misfortunes —he was abandoned by his father, his mother and wife both died prematurely, he died a pauper—with stories of the writer’s creative endeavors, from iconic works like “The Tell-Tale Heart” to major flops like Eureka. —BPK
Art: “The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters” at MOMA (through March 22, 2015): The first MOMA show devoted exclusively to Lautrec in thirty years, this exhibition features over 100 of the artist’s works, displayed thematically, that give a sweeping overview of Lautrec’s Paris and depict everything from dining and nightlife to prostitutes and horseracing. —BPK
Music: Mostly Mozart Festival Closing Night: Mozart’s Requiem (Friday & Saturday): The Mostly Mozart Festival closes its season with recitals of its namesake composer’s beloved but embattled Requiem Mass. The orchestra will perform the original completion by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, edited by the Festival's own conductor, Louis Langrée. Leading the vocal quartet will be the soprano Susanna Phillips, one of the brightest young stars on the Metropolitan Opera’s stage. —ECS
Other: New York International Fringe Festival (through August 24): This year marks the eighteenth iteration of the largest multi-arts festival in North America, with 200 companies performing a variety of shows ranging from experimental musicals to classical revivals. With such a wide array of offerings not everything will be worth seeing, but NYCFringe is a can’t-miss opportunity to discover emerging talent from around the world. —BPK
From the archive: Dogma & Diaghilev by Laura Jacobs, May 2010: On Balanchine's work with the impresario and the lack of craftsmanship on the stage today.
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Where is Lord Elgin when you need him? In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was serving as British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Exercising fiduciary responsibility for the cultural patrimony of the West was not high on the list of the Muslim’s list of priorities. In Athens, the art […]
via Salzburger Festspiele; photo by Michael Pöhn
In my years at Salzburg, I have seen three Don Giovannis—three different productions, I mean. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the great soprano, walked out of the first one. She has since been one of my favorite critics (as well as singers).
The latest production is by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, director of theater here at the festival. I will say a few words about it.
The opera begins in total darkness—no light in the orchestra pit or anything. The curtain opens to a creepy tableau. I thought of the Addams family. The action takes place in a hotel lobby (I’m pretty sure). The entire opera—all of Don Giovanni—will take place in this lobby. We seem to be in a police state, with heel-clicking and so forth.
A naked lady emerges. She’s wearing a devil’s mask, I think. This allows me to trot out an old aphorism of mine: “Salzburg is a place where the people in the audience are overdressed and the people onstage are underdressed.”
In due course, Giovanni appears, and he smears black on his face. He’s off to pursue and accost Donna Anna.
Anna, of course, is no victim. She has the total hots for Giovanni. This used to be daring in productions; now it is de rigueur. From daring to de rigueur: That is sort of the story of opera productions.
Giovanni doesn’t kill Anna’s father, the Commendatore. Not really. He guides the knife, or sword, and Anna kills him.
To go with the famous catalogue—Giovanni’s little black book (or big black book)—there are photos. Photos of the women Giovanni has conquered. Among them, I could almost swear, is a picture of . . . Schwarzkopf! As Leporello sings the Catalogue Aria, Elvira, repulsed, goes to barf in a bucket.
Zerlina is always running off with Giovanni. Not just once or twice, not just initially, but repeatedly. If this is the case, what is her beef against Giovanni? Can the story make sense?
As she sings “Vedrai, carino,” maybe the tenderest aria in all of opera, Zerlina straddles Masetto, sexually. Then the two disrobe. I’m not sure “Vedrai, carino” is the place.
At the end of the opera, Giovanni is not dragged down to hell. If he is, he doesn’t stay there long. He’s back in the hotel lobby, chasing after maids and such. Thus is the opera deprived of its moral message. There is a new message: “Don’t worry, fellas. You can get your freak on eternally!”
Sometimes, when a musician has taken absurd liberties with a composer’s score, we say he has “recomposed” the piece. Salzburg has rewritten the story of Don Giovanni.
Bechtolf’s Giovanni is no doubt an amazing piece of theater. Seldom has an opera been so theatrical, in my experience. Every character onstage is doing something every second. I’m skeptical whether this is called for. At various points, I thought, “The director should just let them sing a little bit. Give them a few seconds off.”
In my judgment, this production is wrongheaded. It is also brilliant. You can hardly take your eyes off it. Brilliant and wrongheaded, is that possible? Evidently, yes.
The cast was almost uniformly young and physically attractive. (I attended on Tuesday night, I should say.) When Zerlina appeared in her wedding gown, she did not look like an opera singer: She looked like a model in Brides magazine. I was ready to rip management for hiring these singers on the basis of youth and physical beauty. Yet most of them sang very well—so management is off the hook.
Giovanni was the Italian bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, who sang glowingly, nimbly, and magnetically. Leporello was the Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, who scarcely put a foot wrong. I have often written that about him.
It mattered that these two men were Italian. Giovanni and Leporello do a lot of talking with each other. Bechtolf, I believe, added more talking. These two just spat that Italian at each other, natively and engagingly.
Elvira was the German soprano Anett Fritsch, who, to me, is a discovery. She could not only slink around in her lingerie, she could sing superbly. The same is true of our Anna, Lenneke Ruiten, a Dutch soprano. And how about our Brides model, the Zerlina? She was Valentina Nafornita, a young soprano from Moldova. She, too, proved a fine and winning singer.
Ottavio was the English tenor Andrew Staples—who I bet has had better nights. He owns a lovely instrument in any case. (Why is it that Don Ottavios often come off so poorly? Even with their two arias to sing? The role can be thankless.) Masetto was a young Italian baritone, Alessio Arduini. Solid in his singing, he also boasted a mane of black hair.
The Commendatore was a crewcut Polish bass-baritone, Tomasz Konieczny. He was sturdy but underpowered. For years now, I have been fighting against amplification in the opera house and concert hall (such as I can). Nonetheless, I think that amplification of the Commendatore is justified when the gent is dead. This adds to the spookiness of the thing. There was no amplification in Salzburg’s House for Mozart (that I could discern).
Playing in the pit was the Vienna Philharmonic, led by Christoph Eschenbach. I have long remarked on a certain quality of this conductor: coiledness. He is coiled, tense, wired. He had a great night in the House for Mozart, maintaining tension all through the opera, and allowing for the necessary grace as well. This was a smart, musical, exciting Giovanni. I have never heard Eschenbach more effective.
The audience called the performers back for bow after bow. Once the applause died down and the curtain closed for good, we heard a burst of cheering from behind that curtain. The performers were celebrating onstage.
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King Lear at the Delacorte Theater; photo by Joan Marcus
“This is most strange,” the King of France says at the beginning of King Lear. “This is above all strangeness,” says Edgar near the end of it. The word “strange” and its variants are repeated no fewer than eleven times over the course of the play, a refrain to which the tragic action always returns.
The staging of Shakespeare in the Park’s King Lear matches the strangeness of the play itself. The director, Daniel Sullivan, eschews the old convention of full regalia and flouts the newer convention of “bold,” distracting staging, choosing instead a minimalist middle ground. John Lee Beatty’s set is simple and unobtrusive, consisting of a bare wooden platform with several sets of stairs on every side; a rough dark background that turns a velvety gray in the dimmed light; and a layer of gravel that looks like “moulten lead” (to borrow Lear’s expression). The set almost focuses attention on its own barrenness, a strange and ingenious effect of self-negation. Austere garments and dissonant music round out the high seriousness of the play.
Unfortunately, this seriousness does not always receive its due. Jay O. Sanders (Kent) does not embody the good counsel and dignity of the king’s chief advisor. Instead, he becomes entrapped in a strange, hard to place accent for the bulk of the play. Sanders’s over-the-top alter ego amuses, but the amusement comes at a price: Since we never take Kent all that seriously, it’s hard to feel the pain of his exile, or the loss Lear has brought on himself by banishing him.
John Lithgow, luckily, carries much of the play, and with the help of Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji) and Gloucester (Clarke Peters), his Lear awakens the compassion and sorrow of the audience in full measure. The stage-acting veteran has given life to a character of immense complexity, and shape to his fragmentary language.
The same cannot be said of many of the supporting actors. Goneril and Regan, played by Annette Bening and Jessica Hecht, seem almost dead in their delivery; their speech is flat; the words fall out like stones. Somehow it has been assumed that evil is emptiness, rather than the teeming source of multiplied perversities which Shakespeare conceives it to be. Bening’s Goneril is stiff and staid; she lacks the rich and varied malice of the murderess, whose lust for power is almost sensual.
Bening speaks clearly enough, as many of the cast do, but the intonation is off much of the time. Regan alternates between a honeyed drawl and a harsh, word-by-word enunciation used to deliver edicts and death warrants. This cross between petty tyrant and charming temptress hardly suits her unfeeling nature, or the severe, personal abuse she inflicts on her father. Even Jessica Collins, who plays Cordelia, cannot go beyond a one-dimensional goodness—she is a simplified Christ-figure who wants something human. The secondary characters dwindle. Of course, most characters do pale in light of Lear’s arm-swinging madness and impotent rage. Nonetheless there is no excuse for them to be played as mere echo chambers; they are richly drawn and demand a nuance of their own.
A strange mixture emerges from these elements. Nature and artifice mingle and make for an eerie, disorienting atmosphere. Stiffness and flatness in some of the cast serve as backdrops for the forceful expression and dynamism of the rest. The production succeeds admirably where it most counts, where the play reaches its highest pitch of tragedy: Lear howling on the heath; Edgar gashing himself as Poor Tom; Gloucester attempting suicide and being pathetically disappointed. The skin tingles to hear the famous passages declaimed with such energy in the cool of night, and you feel in these moments that Lear is not just the story of a king in decline but of the end of the world, the unaccountable and impenetrable darkness that covers all, from the proudest king down to Poor Tom the madman. The rest of the play sounds rather too much like a recitation, and, were it a playwright less talented than Shakespeare, perhaps such plodding rhythms might be forgiven. As it is, Shakespeare’s phrasing demands not only technical precision but depth of feeling. Without this, the tragedy of Lear seems too much like a destination without a journey, a peak of heartbreaking sadness with no path leading up to it, which the mind suddenly beholds without the guidance of a thickened plot and evolving dynamics. Perhaps further performances will remedy these defects; for now, we have a Lear of fine moments—solemnity in grief, majesty in madness, sympathy in vain—but not the full-fledged art and arc of Shakespeare’s deepest play.
For a different take on Shakespeare in the Park’s King Lear, be sure to check back for Kevin D. Williamson’s coverage in the September issue of The New Criterion.
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